The Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle (MST) was formally inaugurated on 22 February 1968. Within these fortysix years the Society has made stupendous development in all fields. Today with a membership of 365 priests and one Bishop and three large mission regions under her protection, the Society can validly claim that she has been faithful in carrying out her duties as the Missionary Institute of the Syro-Malabar Church. But many of the members, especially the young generation, may not be aware of the humble beginnings the Society had, and the circumstances which led to the establishment of the Society. This article is a modest attempt to retrace the history of the beginning of the Society and to make ourselves aware of the great responsibility that we have inherited from our visionary founder.
Before we embark upon a real historiography, we shall dedicate a few lines to speak about the founder himself. Though we have several founder members, we have only one founder: the late Bishop of Pala His Excellency Mar Sebastian Vayalil. He was a real visionary with a historical mission. He was well aware of the great missionary mandate that the Syro-Malabar Church had inherited. At a time when it was hard for the western missionaries to come to India and when there was a surge in the missionary interest among the St Thomas Christians, Mar Vayalil thought of an association of missionaries of the Church of St Thomas Christians. It is not difficult for anyone who goes through the annals of the history of the beginning of MST to see that MST was the result of the farsightedness and missionary vision of Mar Sebastian Vayalil. Fr Joseph Maliparampil writes, “St Thomas Missionary Society is the fruition of a long cherished vision of the ‘missionary Bishop’, Mar Sebastian Vayalil that the Syro-Malabar Church should have an association of missionaries”. A founder is one who gives birth to a new ideology or an institute or establishment. Similar thoughts and ideas may have been well in circulation, but it is the one who gives concrete form to them who is regarded as the founder. There could have been several people who had nurtured the idea of forming a missionary institute. But it was Bishop Vayalil who visualized it as an institute of the Church and gave concrete form to it, of course with the help of his priests. In the words of Cardinal Lourdsamy, it was in 1962 “that the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle began to take shape in the vision of late Mar Sebastian Vayalil, then Bishop of Palai”. The initiatives taken by him and the co-operation and support extended by other prelates of the Church really paved the way for the foundation of the Society. In the report of the Director General presented at the General Assembly of 1973 we read, “… it is the Bishop of Palai who took initiatives on his own accord and on behalf of the Hierarchy to give shape to this missionary project, encouraged as he was by the Holy Father himself and the Cardinal Prefects of the Sacred Congregations of the Oriental Churches and Propaganda Fide”
Bishop Vayalil began to think about the possibility of the formation of a missionary institute of the Syro-Malabar Church while preparing for the Ad Limina visit of 1960. During the visit, Bishop met the Holy Father John XXIII and apprised him of the plan to begin an association to canalize the vocations of the Syro-Malabar Church. He then consulted the matter with the Cardinals of the Oriental Congregation and Propaganda Fide. Back home, he put forward his plan in the Syro-Malabar Bishop’s Conference. The Conference extended its support and encouraged him to go forward with the idea. The Bishop was in Rome again in 1961 and 1962 and received expert advice from the Congregations about the nature of the Society. The next stage was the consultation with the priests of the diocese. He held different meetings with the likeminded priests of the diocese and discussed with them the future of the Society that he had in mind. A pious union was formed with likeminded priests on 22 January 1965. The Bishop canonically erected the MST on 22 February at Melampara. Fr Maliparampil acknowledged the great role of Bishop Vayalil in these words, “Our Gratitude to His Excellency Bishop Sebastian Vayalil knows no bounds. He was our first superior. He is our founder. …. The forming of the Missionary Society will be hailed as the greatest event of the episcopate of Bishop Sebastian Vayalil by the future historians.”
The founding of the Society was a natural and logical conclusion of the efforts that spanned at least one decade. The efforts of Bishop Vayalil that began in 1959 found fruits on 22 February 1968 when the MST was formally inaugurated at Melampara.(see Map)
The idea is born
In 1950s there was a sudden boost in the number of young men of the Syro-Malabar Church going to do mission work in India and abroad. Different factors had contributed to this sudden burst in missionary vocations in the Church. The Hierarchy of the Syro-Malabar Church had by then been established and was well in control. Many favorable conditions such as the establishment of the Mission League, starting of Mission Home, and beginning of the Magazine Prekshithakeralam from Mangalapuzha Seminary etc also played a vital role in this missionary awakening. It was in this background that H.E. Sebastian Vayalil while preparing for the Ad Limina visit of 1960 came across the idea of beginning an association of priests of the Syro-Malabar Church to canalize the missionary vocations. Rev. Fathers Kurian Vanchipurackal and John Perumattam were entrusted with the task of preparing the report of the diocese to be presented to the Holy See. The report clearly was an eye opener to the Bishop to see that many young men of the Diocese had to change their rite to become missionaries. It was the immediate reason why the Bishop began to think about forming a missionary association and he included this project also in the Ad Limina report. Thus the love for the Syro-Malabar Church and its traditions was the chief motivating force for the Bishop to think about the missionary association. It must be the same love and concern for the traditions of this Church that should become now the stabilizing force of the Society.
The idea receives clarity
It was in Rome that the idea of a missionary association got more clarity. While presenting his report to Pope John XXIII, the Bishop informed him of the plan to begin an association for mission work. Welcoming the idea, the Pope asked the Bishop to consult with the experts in Oriental Congregation and Propagande Fide. The Congregations now suggested the Bishop to begin a Missionary Society instead of a religious congregation, as there had been several already in India. Thus the idea about the missionary association got more clarity with the discussions held at Rome.
Support of the Syro-Malabar Hierarchy
Coming back from the Ad limina visit Mar Vayalil in an official meeting of the Syro-Malabar Bishop’s Conference, proposed the plan for a missionary Society for the Church. He suggested: “It should be a common society of the whole Malabar Church to be erected by the hierarchy and placed under it”. The Bishops approved the step and promised their support. They asked Mar Vayalil to take up responsibility, as there were more vocations in the diocese of Pala.
Priests of the Diocese get involved
The Bishop now began official consultation with his priests who were interested in the idea. He convened a meeting of the interested priests at 3.00 pm on 25 March 1963 at the Bishop’s House. Msgr Philip Valiyil (V.G), Rev. Fathers Mathew Kottarathumialy (Chancellor), Joseph Maliparampil, Abraham Kaipanplackal, Kurian Vanchipurackal, Sebastian Pottanany, Abraham Ettackakunnel, Francis Kandathil, and John Perumattam attended the meeting. “His Lordship the Bishop in his speech to the priests assembled explained the purpose of the meeting. He told them that on the occasion of his ad limina visit to Rome in 1960he had submitted an application to the Ap. See requesting permission to start a missionary institute for the propagation of faith in India and that now he was authorized by the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches to take the necessary steps for the foundation of a missionary institute as he desired and to send its constitution to Rome for approbation. The members welcomed the idea”. However the meeting was not able to reach a conclusion about the exact nature of the proposed institute. A committee was constituted to draft the statutes of the future society. Rev. Fathers Kurian Vanchipurackal and John Perumattam were the members of it.
A second meeting of the priests was convened on 3 March 1964. Its main purpose was to discuss the draft constitution. Msgr Philip Valiyil, Fathers Mathew Kottarathumialy, Thomas Purayidom, Joseph Maliparampil, Abraham Ettackakunnel, Augustine Kandathil, Sebastian Pottananickal, Kuriakose Mampuzha, Alexander Cherukarakunnel, Joseph Nadayath, Jacob Maliekal, T.C. Joseph, Jacob Plathottam and John Perumattam were the participants this time. “During the meeting each article of the draft constitution was read with explanations when needed and passed with amendments proposed by the members. The meeting came to a close at about 5.30pm with the decision taken to send the constitution to Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Churches as early as possible”. Bishop Mar Vayalil later got the permission of the Bishop’s Conference to submit the draft to the Holy See. The draft was sent to Rome on 14 March 1964.
Pious Union comes into being
A third meeting of the priests was convened on 22 January 1965. The Bishop informed the members of the permission he had to start and organize the missionary institute as a Pious Union of the diocesan clergy for mission work. Nine out of the twenty-five priests present inscribed their names as the members of the pious Union. They were Jospeh Maliparampil, Abraham Kaipanplackal, Abraham Ettackakunnel, Augustine Puthenpura, Francis Kandathil, George Kuzhikandam, Joseph Puthenpura, Paul Naickarakudy, and John Perumattam. Mar Sebastian Vayalil was unanimously chosen as the president of the Pious Union and Fr John Perumattam as the secretary and treasurer.
Another meeting was held at the Bishop’s House on 8-9 March 1965. The participants were the members of the Pious Union and the priests of the bishop’s House. The meeting decided to send a circular to the priests of the diocese informing them of the nature and purpose of the Pious Union. Meanwhile the Bishop admitted nine students destined for the future missionary Society to the Good Shepherd Minor Seminary. They were Joseph Puthuppally, Thomas Varakil, Thomas Parayady, Joseph Varikatt, Joseph Ancheril, Mathew Karipath, Joseph Maramattam, Kurian Ammanathukunnel, and Mathew Valanatt. Meanwhile some more priests had joined the Pious Union. They were Thomas Ayathamattam, Kurain Valiamangalam, Joseph Puthiath, Zahcharias Thudipara, Thomas Chellantahra, and Joseph Palackatukunnel.
The Statutes for the Missionary Society was approved by the Holy See on 13 June 1967. Bishop Vayalil was authorized to erect the Society and promulgate the Statutes.
An extraordinary meeting of those who were interested in the mission work of the Kerala Church was held on 26 October 1967. Invitation was sent to all priests of the Pala diocese and 80 of them attended. In the meeting the Bishop explained all the steps he had so far taken towards the forming of a missionary Society on behalf of the Archbishops and bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church. All fathers present whole-heartedly supported the idea and promised their full co-operation. Rev Dr C.T. Kottaram on behalf of all the priests present offered one day’s Holy Mass for this purpose. After the meeting a few more priests joined the Pious Union. They were George Kuthiavalchel, Jacob Plathottam, John Kadookunnel, Joseph Ayathamattam, Joseph Karikilamthadam, John Plackeel, Abraham Kaniampady, Joseph Kochayyankanal, Sebastian Pottanany, and Abraham Parappuram.
MST comes into being
The Missionary Society of St Thomas the apostle was formally erected and its Constitution was promulgated on 22 February 1968 by Bishop Sebastian Vayalil in a function presided over by Cardinal Maxmilian de Furstenburg. The foundation stone for the Central House of the Society was also laid on that day. Let me copy down the exact words from the Diary of MST. “Twenty Second February 1968 must be considered a red-letter day in the history of the St Thomas Christians, for, it is on this day the foundation for two great projects, one for a missionary institute and the other for a scheme of mission work outside Kerala, the first of its kind in the two thousand years’ history of the Church of St Thomas Christians, in the presence of the Sacred Hierarchy of the universal and local Churches, has been laid for the interior and exterior renovation of the Church and thereby to spread the message of Christ. At about 5.30pm, February 22 Thursday, 1968 His Eminence Maxmilian Cardinal de Furstenburg reached Ampara, the site of the future headquarters of the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle, accompanied by His Excellency the most Reverend Joseph Caprio, Pro-nuncio to India and the Archbishops and Bishops of the Malabar Church to lay the foundation stone of the Missionary Society. The papal representatives were given a most enthusiastic welcome by the clergy and laity of the parish under the leadership of Very Rev. Fr Kuriakose Muthukattil, parish priest of Bharananganam. Apart from His Eminence Cardinal and the Pro-nuncio the following prelates were present for the function: His Grace Arch Bishop Mar Mathew Kavukatt, His Excellency Mar Sebastian Vayalil, His Excellency Mar Sebastian Valloppilly, Rt Rev Monsignori Rizzi, and Durphy, the two secretaries of the Roman Curia, Rt Rev Msgri Philip Vayalil, Jacob Vellaringatt, Joseph Kuriathadam, Kurian Vanchipurackal, and Thomas Moothedam. The Panchayat President Mr Damodaran Nair garlanded His Eminence. His Excellency Mar Sebastian Vayalil gave the welcome Address, inviting His Eminence Cardinal Maximilian to do the laying function of the foundation stone of the Central of the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle. His Eminence in his speech said that this event should have much importance not only in Kerala and India but also in the whole world”.
The Society begins functioning
By the special faculty obtained from the Holy See, Mar Sebastian Vayalil, on 16 July 1968, appointed Rev Fr John Perumattam the first Director General of the Society. Rev Frs Joseph Maliparampil, Joseph Mattam, Abraham Ettackakunnel, and John Kadookunnel were appointed Councillors. Thus the Society began functioning, the above five members making their promise in the presence of Mar Vayalil. Eleven more members were incorporated immediately and from among them Rev Frs John Plackeel and Sebastian Pottanany were elected Secretary General and Treasurer General respectively”.The first members of the Society were the following: